Becoming a doctors’ doctor: Dr. Michael Myers (@downstatedoctor)

When one of Dr. Michael Myers’ roommates died by suicide during his first year of medical school in 1962, Dr. Myers delivered the news to his classmates in class the next morning. The response?

“No one spoke a word. The professor broke the silence and awkwardly said: “So let’s return to the Krebs cycle.”

So began Dr. Myers journey to become a doctors’ doctor and provide care for his colleagues – a journey detailed in his recently published autobiography “Becoming a Doctors’ Doctor: A memoir”. It is a trip that has taken 40 years and seen Dr. Myers education and career span both sides of the Canadian/US border as both a psychiatrist and an educator.

In any ways, Dr. Myers journey of discovery mirrors that of the medical profession itself over the time period as it came to terms with the need to openly acknowledge that doctors do die by suicide, do become clinically depressed, do become burned out and often do require professional care and treatment.

As a medical writer in the 1980s and through into the first years of the 21st century it was often challenging to find a physician expert to quote on matters relating to physician health and wellbeing. In Canada at that time meetings dealing with physician health tended to focus on physicians with substance use problems and rarely, if ever, dealt with issues of suicide, mental health, or the broader issues of the challenges facing all physicians seeking to maintain their own health.

For me, Dr. Myers was that expert. He was able to speak with authority on issues of physician suicide, mental health, marital issues and more, as he was actually treating his colleagues for these conditions.

We now have the work of the Canadian Medical Association and other associations and leading clinicians such as Dr. Tait Shanafelt at Stanford University and many Canadians who have mapped out the magnitude of the situation and proven approaches to helping physicians stay well. But Dr. Myers book deals with a time when these issues were poorly understood if acknowledged at all.

It feels sometimes as if the book is hitting many of the emotional touchpoints that have impacted physicians over the past few decades – from AIDS to COVID-19. It also traces how medical education is wrestling with the reality of maintaining mental health for students and residents. While often a list of lectures given, conferences attended and accolades received, Dr. Myers’ book is also unflinching in dealing with his mother’s battle with alcohol, coming to terms with his own sexuality and treating physicians with, and without, success.

Throughout the book, with the permission of the patients families, Dr. Myers quotes the words of patients themselves. In his acknowledgements he notes “their permission is a present to physicians everywhere, rooted in a believe that there is too much misunderstanding out there, too much stigma, too much needless suffering.”

The core of what Dr. Myers has tried to achieve is, I believe, nicely stated by the author himself who writes:

“As a doctors’ doctor, I have spent decades listening to chilling and heartbreaking accounts of how shunned or judged my patients have felt by their peers and the institutional rules of the profession of medicine. Those of us who treat physicians have a moral responsibility to do everything in our power to fight these destructive forces by educating, advocating and working for policy change.”

For those interested in tracing the evolution of how the mental health of physicians came to be acknowledged as integral to the wellbeing of the medical profession and the health care system as a whole – as well as in following the life of a conscientious and dedicated physician –  Dr. Myers’ book is an important read.

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